Avoid Sweet Briar for Your College

The news of Sweet Briar’s closing saddens many, including those of us who grew up in the South. This is a region of many historic, liberal arts schools. But sadness does not avoid another Sweet Briar. It does not address the threats that face many schools. There are actions – tough actions – that can be taken to address the threats and avoid becoming the next Sweet Briar or worse.

My recent experience has introduced me to those actions that avoid becoming Sweet Briar – and closing. My Board and I just completed the merger into Arizona State University of the Thunderbird School of Global Management. I was its President. Like Sweet Briar, Thunderbird was a relatively small, private college – but one dedicated to global management education. We are lucky to still have Thunderbird – as a part of ASU. Its students can complete their degrees. New students can enroll in the Thunderbird’s great education, and executives can receive the School’s global management training.

The outcome for Thunderbird was a very good one.  It could have been much worse. Like Sweet Briar, Thunderbird faced increased competition for qualified applicants, changes in what students wanted and employers needed. Like many schools in its situation, Thunderbird was in a vulnerable state. It needed stability, renewal and working capital for its aspirations. Like many schools, its size, traditions and structure limited options.  Luckily its board and I saw a future for the school through partnerships and other alternatives.

There are lessons that can be learned and actions that can be taken:

  1. Be pragmatic about the financial conditions of your college or university. Look at changes over time to your balance sheet and income statement.
  2. If it’s not too late already, begin the “process” of redefining the brand and modifying operations consistent with brand in order to position the school more competitively.
  3. Whether it’s too late or not, implement a communication plan that provides a rationale for the change – in brand or in the search for alternatives.
  4. If it is too late, realistically look for alternatives: joint ventures, mergers, and closure.
  5. Work closely with accreditors to help them understand the school’s situation. Actively solicit their advice and support for alternatives that will be acceptable under regional and specialized accreditation.
  6. Consider consultants like Penley Consulting – and Implement your plan.

The media have made clear that Sweet Briar and Thunderbird are not alone. Both schools took affirmative steps – but with different outcomes. Leadership from presidents and boards will determine what kind of outcome another, similarly vulnerable school receives.

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